Saturday, August 30, 2008

Falling in Love with the Fens

I have been going for long walks on the sea walls over the fens. The sea walls are not stone walls like in Vancouver but rather large earthen banks. The medieval sea wall is lined with hawthorn bushes in many sections bearing a rich crop of red berries. There are also tall elderberry trees. The new sea wall is more open as you are walking beside the River Welland. The Welland is not a wide river and it is tidal so it appears even smaller at low tide. Both walls curve at times and sometimes dip down to the level of the fields, but there are long straight stretches disecting the fields of wheat, kale, potatoes, and cabbages. The land feels timeless with few signs of human habitation.

I went out on a grey, blustery day which suited the landscape perfectly. As I got closer to the mouth of the river, the salt marshes spread out below me. Sturdy blue-green grassses blended with soft green grasses while there were whole banks of tall grasses with dark purplish-brown seed heads bending and dancing in the wind. There were winding mud channels and small ponds with the land seemingly stretching to infinity, the grey sky blending into the grey waters of the Wash which opens on to the North Sea.

In places, the wall dips down to the level of the fields and you skirt isolated farmhouses. The Hundred Acre Farm had 3 curious Shetland ponies munching the long grass. There are also large ditches and pumphouses to control the water level. Sometimes the path is very overgrown. Blackberry brambles tear at your clothes, and you must work hard to avoid the stinging nettles. Swifts, ring doves, pigeons, and seagulls swoop overhead, and there are a few small flowers in the grass. Apparently you can see hares in the fields in spring.

The past week has been dry so the farmers have been working long hours to harvest the fields. The wheat fields in front of and behind the cottage were cleared last evening with the farmer working until after 11 pm. In fact, the farmers hire contractors with large harvesters to harvest the crop. As we ate supper, we could see into the large, air-conditioned cab where the driver was sitting with his wife and two daughters as they circled the field.

Last Saturday we drove to King's Lynn, which is a charming, old port on the River Ouse. Like Boston, King's Lynn has been a thriving port and central to England's commercial activities since the Middle Ages. The wide quays and attractive Customs House indicate the importance of trade between Britain and Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France (the Hanseatic League). The town wasn't bombed during World War II so there are lots and lots of very old houses - substantial Georgian merchants' houses with barley twist columns at the front door, old houses with wooden beams and crooked windows, tiled roofs that dip and curve, even a Renaissance tower. But the quays are now almost deserted - the real activity is now in the pedestrianized shopping area with modern stores and restaurants. Everything changes while everything stays the same. Commerce and shopping are still central activities.

We visited a deconsecrated church that had a lovely tall ceiling with wooden rafters that was lined with large wooden carvings of angels. There were stone carvings of two devils struggling to enter the church on either side of the main door. They had managed to get their heads and shoulders inside the church before they were walled up and unable to proceed any further. King's Lynn was also a fishing community, and Vaughan Williams came Rhapsody.

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